Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Global Citizenship: Thinking Beyond Borders

Back in April 2007 - oh, it seems so long ago now - I was awarded an Irma M. Parhad Programmes Studentship. This program gives money to students who are traveling abroad thereby enabling them to develop a holistic understanding of a situation abroad that is disrupting human health and welfare. It is then the student's responsibility to convey that understanding with the Calgary community upon his or her return.


From November 22-24, 2007 the Irma M. Parhad Programmes held its annual conference, this year entitled: Global Citizenship, Thinking Beyond Borders. Myself, and five other students had the opportunity to share their stories and learnings from their experience overseas. Here is my presentation...

My name is Brenna Atnikov, and this past summer I was living in a small village called Oyarifa – just north of Accra in Ghana, West Africa working on the knowledge creation piece of my thesis process. I was working with children – as my co-researchers – on a community development project which used photography as an advocacy tool, while also evaluating their individual experiences of growth and change as a result of their participation.

But before I get into more detail, allow me to begin by telling you a brief story – one I’ve told many times, and which I could not have predicted would serve as the underlying motivation for much of the work I do.

When I was in Junior High school – perhaps grade 8 or 9 – my mother went to my school’s Parent-Teacher interviews, an annual opportunity for parents to hear first hand what teachers had to say about their children. It is at this meeting where my French teacher asked my mom, “how did you manage to raise such confident, independent thinking children?”.

Now, keep in mind the context: I went to an extremely small school – 500 children from nursery to grade 9 (there were only 23 of us in my graduating class). A school where bullying, especially amongst the girls was rampant. Personally, I remember being kicked and told to “break a leg” just before going on stage to perform my new country line dance routine – a completely devastating moment – and I witnessed other girls being told not to talk to other girls, and on and on. We all know how devastating experiencing bullying can be – generally that it can contribute to a person’s low self-esteem and confidence in one’s self. And yet, I had a teacher asking how I remained so self confident.

And so, my mother’s response to my teacher’s question was, “I tell my children I love them everyday”. And she was right… At the end of the day, yes I was upset and hurt, but I also knew there were people that cared about me.

My mother recounted this interaction between herself and my teacher when she returned home, I put it aside, and never really gave it much thought.

And then, 5 years later, now 19 years old, I was attending the University of Victoria’s Child and Youth Care Program where I saw numerous examples of what life can be like for kids and teens who are not told – everyday – that they are loved by someone who matters to them.

And 8 years after that, at 27 years old, I am a Master’s of Social Work student, wondering what would OR will happen if an entire generation of children and youth are never told the they matter, that their opinion counts, that they are loved.

And so begins my inquiry and the work that brought me to Ghana this past summer.

Along the way, several other elements of social work have intrigued me, so much so, that their incorporation into my field work and thesis research with children was inevitable.

Firstly, I was introduced to the concepts of Adult Education and liberatory education. Essentially – that education does not have to be a banking process where a teacher passes on knowledge to a student. Rather, both facilitator and learner – notice the change of language – have something to learn from one another in a process of mutual and reciprocal learning. It is through this pedagogy – or style of instruction – where meaningful and collective knowledge creation for social change occurs.

In my work in Ghana I simply took the principles of Adult Education – namely critical pedagogy and critical consciousness – and applied them to working with children.

Second, the concept, and associated values and ethics of Community Development was introduced to me and immediately resonated. For me, it provided the ideal focal point for my work to revolve around. This as opposed to micro-level, counseling work – which I studied in depth at the University of Victoria – and which I came to believe was simply putting a band-aid on much larger, systemic problems. And on the other end of the continuum, my time in Development Studies overwhelmed me with a global system of policies, treaties, and conventions which do not appear to make significant change on the ground. Community development, or in other words, “building active and sustainable communities based on social justice and mutual respect”, with actual community members, fits much better with how I see myself being able to contribute to significant, lasting change.

Overtime however, I began to find the concept of Community Development over-shadowed the critical component of community which is so important to development, namely: individuals. And I wondered: “If communities are essentially comprised of individuals, how must individuals change in order for community transformation to happen?”

Piecing it all together then – along with my passion for the African continent and my interest in working with children and youth – I developed my field placement program and thesis research around individual and community development. More specifically, I wanted to learn about individual experiences of participation in an active community building program, and how that contributes to hope and building meaningful community change.

The actual program design was guided by the Photovoice approach – which seeks to contribute to social change through photography. This happens when cameras are entrusted to the hands of people to enable them to act as recorders, and potential catalysts for social action and change in their own communities.

So, once a week, for three and a half months, I met with 21 youth between 10 and 16 years old, where we would engage in critical thinking and learning activities, whose purpose was to begin to look at their individual struggles and challenges from a different perspective, initiate group solidarity, and to prompt and inspire the images they would eventually capture.

At the end of it all – 21 cameras, 46 pictures and stories, and countless rolls of film – the group hosted a photo exhibit on October 5 in Accra to showcase their pictures and accompanying stories to representatives of government ministries, child and rights based NGOs, arts groups, university professors, and concerned citizens. The photo exhibit – entitled Images for Development, had the theme of Health & Safety Issues in Our Community – served as the “action” component of the program – an advocacy tool – where children’s vivid photographs and stories provided evidence and initiated the dialogue to build healthful public policy.

The last piece of the program was to evaluate what the experience of participation was like for my co-researchers with the intention of uncovering the processes, structures, and styles which enable “community development learning” – a concept I found through the Federation for Community Development Learning” – and one which I like because it expands on the deficiencies of ‘community development’ by including individuals and their personal change and growth in the development process.

Based on the children’s evaluation and feedback, the successes of this program include:
The children said their skill sets have increased to include knowing how to: use a camera, speak in public, and express oneself clearly;
Learning how to think and observe critically;
They now view themselves as people who can be leaders in their community today, rather than waiting to be adults;
They think their opinion matters and they feel confident to share it; and
They assessed themselves to be more disciplined and better behaved.
If one has an understanding of Ghanaian culture, and children’s position in it, I consider these to be major milestones.
I also learned from the children and had many beliefs reinforced. For example:
Participatory approaches to research are a powerful development tool. In other words, research is not just an academic pursuit, but can and should be an educative experience for community members so that they can initiate change;
When you raise the bar and have high expectations – of anyone – they reach the bar, and often go far beyond;
Children and youth are wise, creative, and have an incredible amount of knowledge to contribute to the development process – adults need to acknowledge this fact and genuinely incorporate young people into their work;
And finally… hope is the most essential ingredient of all…
I wish I could have written it myself, but author Studs Terkel says it best, so I’ll just quote him:
“In all epochs, there were at first doubts and the fear of stepping forth and speaking out, but the attribute that spurred the warriors on was hope. And the act. Seldom was there despair or a sense of hopelessness. Some of those on the sidelines, the spectators, feeling helpless and impotent, had by the very nature of the passionate act of others become imbued with hope themselves”.

What I believe Studs Terkel is saying is that it takes one person – only one – with enough courage and hope to step forward. I saw this firsthand in Ghana, with a few courageous children in my project provide the strength for others to join. Afterwards, it’s a chain reaction of people coming on board. And so I leave you with the following questions… If all children are told they matter, that they are loved, that their opinion is valuable, if they know they count – what would our world look like then? Who would be “getting on board” to help us address our most difficult problems? What kind of hope would we have?

Many thanks to Dr. Clark and the Parhad team which significantly contributed to my thesis research in Ghana!


Leor said...

Wow! What an amazing presentation. Congraulations.

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